We have the world at our fingertips—literally.

Over the last decade, technology—and the connectivity it created—has become a critical part of our everyday lives. A whole new generation has grown up with 24/7 connectivity as much a necessity to them as air, food, and water. 

The impact that technology has had on those of us who travel for fun (or for a living) is nothing short of astounding. From railways and steam ships to commercial flights, the age-old world of travel has benefited from technological advances since time immemorial. 

The latest advances are helping travel brands, large and small, enhance their services and transform the ways travelers experience the world. With the tap of a touchscreen, we can learn something about anything. There are apps for every service you could possibly want—from booking a room on the other side of the world or grabbing a cab in a foreign city to translating simple requests into the local language and making a dinner reservation at the best restaurant in town. 

This report details the crossover between the travel and technology industries. Far from dehumanizing travel, the latest technologies like artificial intelligence, blockchain, machine learning, robotics, and virtual reality are actually making travel experiences richer and more personal. 

To succeed, travel companies of the future not only have to deploy technology intelligently but also communicate the new services through the right channels. 

1. Mobility

How many of you are reading this trend report on your mobile device right now? It’s undeniable that mobile devices are leapfrogging desktops in usage, and nowhere is this more evident than in Asia. Let’s start with the biggest kid on the block— China. The country topped the world rankings in tourism volume in 2017, making a record 4.53 billion domestic and overseas trips. Given its market weight, the mobile usage habits of Chinese consumers is something that no brand in the travel industry can afford to ignore. 

Mobile payment transactions in China skyrocketed to a record US 12.8 trillion in the first ten months of 2017, according to the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

This mobile-first mindset will be further ingrained given a recent government announcement to develop and trial an electronic social security card system on WeChat. Many in the hospitality and travel industry have started. Major hotel brands such as Marriott International have dedicated WeChat accounts that not only function as a social channel for inspiration but also take on the practical aspect of a concierge service using chatbots and AI to instantly translate guest inquiries. 

According to KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, about 30 percent of its Chinese consumers are already using an option to pay for flights via WeChat Pay (a feature added in August 2017). 

What does this mean?

Hospitality and travel brands must transform themselves to serve the new mobile on-the-go generation of travelers. This means investing in online payment platforms, communication, m-commerce, and marketing. 

The staggering growth of Chinese travelers also means it’s absolutely critical that brands invest in understanding and meeting the consumption preferences of this group. In order to reach travelers on their platform of choice, brands need to think about not just global social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram but also regional or local ones like WeChat, Weibo, and Line.

Another interesting trend is the parallel and contrasting desire for tech-free experiences. For example, Apple’s new iOS will have reminders to look away from the phone and Instagram is reportedly working on a function to show how long you’ve spent mindlessly scrolling. Tech-free spa treatments, such as those offered by spas at Mandarin Oriental worldwide, are perhaps a testament to the fact that as great and useful connectivity is, untethered moments of reflection are just as important to a traveler’s experience. 

Closely tied to mobility is the use of social media. Social media influencers such as travel Instagrammers and YouTube stars are fueling the travel bug in millennials and Z-lennials around the world. These travelers are looking for truly local experiences, which means that the travel industry must create mobile platforms that provide uniquely local content to capture and hold their attention. 

Mobile technologies can also augment the experiences of travelers once they arrive at their destinations or hotels. Marriott International offers app-based check-in services to members of its Marriott and Starwood Hotels reward programs. 

2. Biometrics

Biometrics refers to an individual’s unique physical characteristics, from fingerprints or hand geometry to retina and iris patterns, voice waves, or DNA. With advances in technology, biometrics has become a common and reliable method of verifying a person’s identity.

Over the last two decades, more passengers have taken to the skies, traveling both for work and leisure. World Bank data reveals that the number of international travel departures across the globe has more than doubled from 600 million to 1.4 billion during this time. Yet at every step of the journey, especially across international borders, queues are the bane of every traveler’s life.

Whether for check-in, security, immigration, or boarding, travelers are used to standing in line every step of the way. In high-traffic locations like airports where security is paramount, biometrics can be a savior, putting an end to snaking queues. In fact, biometrics can also enhance safety by allowing security to focus on tasks that cannot be automated as easily. 

Seventy-eight percent of travelers are willing to use biometrics. This includes fingerprints and facial recognition. It would speed up the process of custom and immigration checking in and boarding.

Hotels too will greatly benefit from biometrics. In the future, fingerprints will replace the check- in process and hotel key cards. Aside from room access, biometrics can help hotels manage access to amenities such as the spa, fitness center, clubhouse, and meeting rooms. Using biometrics can help property managers know the exact occupancy of any space at a given time, which can be extremely useful for manpower allocation and in times of emergency. 

Biometrics can also be used to enhance guest wellness services. Six Senses Resorts and Spas record biometric health data at the start of a guest’s sojourn to structure a personalized wellness program. By analyzing what the company refers to as its guests’ “biomarkers,” Six Senses can identify areas of strength and improvement in a guest’s wellness journey and provide specific insights into how guests can achieve their wellness goals. 

What does this mean?

In the next decade, biometrics will become the universal remote for identity verification. As this happens, travel companies will find themselves in a position to personalize the experience for every guest without introducing additional hurdles for them each step of the way. The key to success will lie in being savvy enough to use this technology to create unique consumer experiences and make even the most tedious parts of travel enjoyable. 

3. Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is taking the world by storm. The number of connected devices is growing every day, and with it a corresponding opportunity to leverage this in the travel industry. In fact, we have already seen benefits from IoT on several fronts, from streamlining consumer interactions to back-of-house operations.

Thanks to IoT, consumers can wake up to the scent of a perfect cup of coffee at the click of a button. Bluetooth-enabled wearable fitness trackers can be linked to the smartphone to monitor the depth and breadth of sleep patterns. To help guests kickstart their day, their shower can be programmed to come on at an optimal temperature. This is farther from science fiction and closer to reality that you would think. The big brands are certainly investing in making this happen. 

Late last year, Marriott International teamed up with Samsung and Legrand to launch the IoT Guestroom Lab, which explores concepts with the potential to elevate the guest experience and create more efficient hotel design as well as contribute to the brand’s sustainability efforts. 

Intelligent sensors are simplifying life for travelers today, especially at high traffic transportation hubs like airports, tourist hotspots, stadiums, and conference centers. 

At Disney World, all guests get Magic Bands equipped with RFID technology and a long range radio—which function as tickets, FastPasses, and even hotel keys. Park-wide sensors transmitting data nonstop enable Disney to track guest locations and patterns, anticipate requests, minimize waiting times, and deploy resources as needed, creating the magical experience they are so well known for. 

Since 2014, IoT has been boosting revenue for airport operations while improving the overall passenger experience, according to a Deloitte report.

Real-time notifications of connecting flights are available to passengers at a snap. At some airports, passengers can now easily locate their bags through their smartphones using RFID luggage tags and find the real-time location of their belongings, along with strengthened security. 

At Hong Kong International Airport, specially-designed “MyTag” luggage tags have been engineered to sync with the airport’s HKG My Flight mobile application. Passengers who attach a “MyTag” to their checked luggage will be sent a notification when their suitcases arrive at the collection point, allowing the baggage claim process to be streamlined. 

With IoT, the travel and automotive insurance industries are also transforming in terms of risk assessment, management of claims, and policy pricing. For instance, do travelers using self-driving cars on holidays reduce or increase driving risk? The ability to answer this and other questions using real data and sophisticated software can help insurance companies develop better, more intelligent policies and the most appropriate insurance rates. 

What does this mean?

The sheer number of devices connected by IoT brings an explosion of data, which will require advanced systems powered by AI to manage and optimize operations and identify actionable insights. According to ABI research, the segment shows no signs of abating, with IoT device management revenues predicted to climb to US$20.5 billion by 2023. Make no mistake, IoT has the potential to improve business operations and our daily lives, whether we are at home or on the road. 

4. Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is demonstrated by machines that are designed to think and act like humans, displaying behaviors such as planning, learning, reasoning, and problem solving. 

Indeed, AI-powered chatbots have been used to handle customer queries for some time. However, they have been limited in usefulness by their inability to deal with complex inquiries. This might not be a limitation for much longer. Google’s new Assistant feature, Duplex, shows just how far the technology has come. Featuring a natural-sounding voice, Duplex can place calls on behalf of the user and can understand complex sentences, fast speech, and long remarks. 

Amazon has also entered the travel industry with Alexa for Hospitality, bringing the voice-activated assistant to hotel rooms. Alexa can provide hotel information and services, play music as well as take control of in-room settings such as lighting, blinds, and temperature. 

With insights gleaned from AI, companies have an opportunity to make personalized recommendations. Travelers making an online flight booking are likely to be offered options for hotel and car rentals. Taking it further through machine learning, AI can make recommendations for cheaper flight times, sightseeing options and even offer alternative destinations based on search parameters such as price. 

The ability to process complex human interactions is an enormous step forward, with massive potential for travel companies once the technology can be scaled to businesses.

Travel operators can use AI to assess customer sentiment by analyzing comments about a company on social media platforms. This information can be used for training purposes, to improve hotel amenities and facilities, or even to anticipate challenging situations. 

The Dorchester Collection, for instance, uses the Metis AI system to analyze and “learn from” the direct online feedback of hotel guests. By analyzing online reviews, Metis was able to tell the luxury hotel group that their guests really cared about their breakfast options. After changing its breakfast strategy, The Dorchester Collection saw an increase in customer satisfaction. 

What does this mean?

While AI has been in development since the 1950s, we are now at the dawn of its mainstream use. Modern facial recognition technology (powered by AI) is capable of scanning thousands of faces each minute with 99.9 percent accuracy. Sooner rather than later we may be able to easily move through airports and board planes without any physical documents at all. 

Applying AI to the abundance of data available in the travel industry will continue to improve how people travel. This is a win-win situation for everyone. Consumers will benefit from shorter wait times and more personalized options, while companies will see more resource efficiency leading to higher conversion rates and cost saving. Most importantly, companies will be able to free up staff to deal with tasks that require human intuition and engagement skills, leading to an overall improved customer experience.

Find out more by downloading CatchOn’s full report

Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 15 No. 6